The 11th Sunday after Trinity—15 August 2021
9 [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (ESV)
Introduction: Caricatures of Self-righteousness and True Faith
A caricature is a picture or description of a person in which a certain striking characteristic is exaggerated in order to make a point. For example, in fairy tales, stepmothers are commonly caricatured. They are normally presented as evil. In one tale, a stepmother makes Cinderella into a servant for her and her daughters. In another tale, a jealous new Queen orders a huntsman to kill her stepdaughter, Snow White.
In today’s Gospel, the Pharisee and the tax collector are caricatures, each with one striking characteristic. The Pharisee is the caricature of a self-righteous braggart. He stands in the Temple and fakes gratitude, pretending to be thankful that he is so great. In a similar way, the tax collector is the caricature of a Christian. He does not dare look God in the eye. He beats his breast. He asks for God to be merciful to him, a sinner. And he returns to his home justified by grace.
The Pharisee is a hypocrite. Oh, he appears outwardly good but his heart is black. He does not love God or his neighbour. He is deluded and only loves himself, trusting in his own works and his own goodness to save him. In contrast, the tax collector has faith. He knows he is a sinner. He is ashamed of himself and wants to do better. But that is not all. Despite his shame and sorrow over his sins, the tax collector also is confident in God’s promises and in God’s consistency toward sinners. He knows God desires all people to turn from their sins and be saved. He knows God desires mercy and not sacrifice. He knows that the purpose of the Temple is to reconcile sinners to God, and so he know what to ask of God.
Confession and Absolution—the heart of our faith in Christ!
I say that the tax collector is the caricature of a Christian because the one striking characteristic we see in him is his confession and the absolution he receives from God. This is the heart of our faith. Christ died for sinners. He makes no distinction between them; rather, our Saviour Jesus freely and gladly forgives anyone who repents and believes.
But there is more to our faith and to our being Christians. We must consider what brings a person, whether a notorious sinner like the tax collector or a young child, to repentance. We need to ask what repentance looks like. And finally, we need to consider how the Gospel actually renders a change in believers.
God’s Word brings true repentance, which is both contrition and faith.
True repentance comes from God’s Word. The Word exposes our sin and strips away our excuses. Thus the tax collector felt sorrow over sin, pangs of conscience, and also fear of God’s wrath. Now, without the Word of God, people can certainly feel regret and shame over their sins. But they will also think that their excuses have merit, that they are not as bad as others or that they actually meant well or that what they did wasn’t really a sin. God’s Word, though, crushes that false hope and reveals the truth that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
But true repentance is more than just contrition over sin. It is also faith. God’s Word exposes sin, thus showing both God’s goodness and justice. The Word also proclaims God’s promises and declares His mercy. The Word exposes God’s heart for sinners. True faith believes that God’s Law and wrath are real. True faith also believes that God’s purpose in the Temple was to reconcile sinners to Himself in a mercy that endures forever and that the Temple’s purpose was ultimately and completely fulfilled in the Son of God becoming Man and laying down His life for us. True faith believes that we
are justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood (Roman 3:24-25). The word propitiation refers to God covering all of sins with the blood of the Lamb of God, so that He no longer sees them. You are covered in the blood of the Lamb of God, so that God no longer sees your sins. That is what true faith believes.
Good works follow repentance as fruits worthy of repentance.
True repentance, the repentance of the tax collector, has two sides: a putting to death and a raising to life. And that which follows repentance are good works, fruits worthy of repentance. For true repentance is not stagnant but is a turning away from sin and a turning toward God. Here we see that the Gospel actually renders a change in believers, that true repentance leads to the amendment of our sinful lives.
A popular notion in Luther’s day was that repentance is about “paying off” God, about making some sort of satisfaction for our sin. And sadly, this notion is still common today. But that is not repentance! Repentance is recognizing the reality of our sin and turning to God in faith for His mercy in Christ Jesus. This true faith in Christ, which is given us by the Holy Spirit, is a living and active power in our lives, bearing the fruit of good works. We must do good works. God commands them. However, our good works do not save us. Rather, faith clings to Jesus alone; the amendment of our sinful lives—our turning away from self-gratification to trust in God and love for others—is proof that we have a true, living faith. But we must never boast, as did the Pharisee. Rather, we must remember how our Lord Jesus instructed us: So you …, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10).
Continuing in wicked ways is not an option for those who repent.
The tax collector cannot come to the Temple and ask for grace and forgiveness while planning to continue in his wicked ways or by claiming that he could not help himself. His repentance takes responsibility for what he has done. He could have resisted temptation but he didn’t. It was his own fault and no one else’s. God’s Word teaches him that. At the same time, seeing the goodness of God and rejoicing in God’s mercy, the tax collector is ready to make amends and to try to do better. He is not going to keep on cheating people.
When the tax collector asks God to be merciful to him, he is not asking God to excuse his sins. What the tax collector truly wants is to be made righteous. Yes, he wants and expects to be spared God’s wrath for his sins. But he also wants and expects to become what God created and intended him to be. He wants and expects to be made righteous in God’s sight. And he wants to bear the image of God; he wants to be God’s temple of compassion, mercy, and justice for a fallen world.
We need the mercy of God’s Son crucified for the life of the world!
Now, there are many who say they want to be free of sin. But they pretend that they actually did not sin or that their sins do not matter or that their sins have caused no one harm. And it is no different for us. Do not deceive yourself. Our fallen flesh wants a forgiveness that spares us from God’s wrath but still wants to engage in selfish behaviour. But you cannot serve God and mammon. Baptized into Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, you cannot and do not remain in sin and unrighteousness. In Christ, you repent. In Christ, you make, a true, sincere confession. In Christ, you trust in God to take care of and forgive you.
Of course, it is hard. The fight against sin is, after all, a fight. Even if you manage by the grace of God to restrain yourself from notorious, public, outward sins, you still have the wickedness of your heart and your secret thoughts. You are not better than the tax collector. Do not be less honest than he is either. You need grace, forgiveness. You need the mercy of God’s Son crucified for the life of the world. Jesus has stood in the gap for you, taking God’s wrath and accusations in your place. He has died your death to bring you life and to present you to His Father as His own immaculate Bride.
The life of the tax collector is your life!
The life of the tax collector is your life. Do not mock it or despise it. Do not neglect it, and do not try to improve upon it by boasting of your good works. The tax collector’s life of confessing sins and receiving absolution is your life in Christ. Receive it. Believe it. Trust it. Thus you go home justified.
God’s gift to you—going home justified!
The Pharisee and the tax collector both go up to the temple to pray. One goes to the temple to impress God, to try bargaining with God to win His favour. The other goes to confess his sins and to seek God’s mercy. And it is the tax collector—that poor, miserable sinner—who goes home justified, forgiven.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, how great is your need for God’s mercy? Well, as great as the most insignificant sinner, for that is who you are. And I am too. But thanks be to God that Jesus stooped down and died for us insignificant sinners to save us for all eternity. And He has made us God’s children through Holy Baptism.
Now, the God who washed us clean in the baptismal waters will certainly hear and answer our prayers for mercy as we still struggle as sinners living in a fallen world. And so do not come to impress God; rather, come to lay all your burdens and sins before God’s throne of mercy. Come to cry out: God be merciful to me, a sinner. Come, expecting God to heal you, to forgive you, to pour out His love upon you through His Holy Word and Supper, all for the sake of Jesus.
What Good News—the best news in all the world for us who confess that we are broken by our sins—that here in the Divine Service, our Saviour Jesus gathers us that we may receive His mercy in abundance. And then He sends us home justified, forgiven, filled with the Holy Spirit with the power to amend your life in faith toward God and love for others. All you who seek God’s mercy, behold what Jesus does to you today: He mercies you, He graces you, He pardons you, He heals you with His forgiving love and then He says to you: “go home in joy and peace, for I have given you and you have received the mercy for which you have prayed”. Praise be to God! Amen.